The Name Not Taken

Mar 25th 2010

Last week power-blogger Jason Kottke published a list of the names he didn't choose for his baby daughter. In his words, "Since we are so so (SO!) done having kids, I thought I'd share our list in case someone else finds any of them useful."

The list is very consistent in style. The girls are conspicuously but charmingly antique (Beatrix, Coralie), while the boys are quirky, pint-sized traditionals (Hugo, Finn). Milton is a notable outlier. All in all, a stylish group with an upscale urban/artsy feel.

What really fascinated me, though, wasn't the names themselves but the baby-naming psychology that the blog post embodied. The title, while jokey, says a lot: "Baby names for sale, never used." I suspect most parents can relate to this. It's as if our rejected names still in some way belong to us.

Have you ever seen an exchange between the mother of a toddler and another mom with a newborn baby, something like this? "Oh, Felix? Felix was on our short list when Jasper was born!!" Jasper's mom beams, feeling a real link with little Felix. Meanwile baby Felix's mom smiles tightly at the interloper who dares to think she owns some piece of the special name which belongs to HER, darn it!

As we mull over our short lists, we become attached to the names. They each develop personalities, linked to images of our potential future with different possible children. Even after the winning name is chosen and the baby born, the attachment to the runners-up lingers.

Like Mr. Kottke, many of us also view our unused names as a mildly tragic waste. I'm hardly immune to this myself. I was thrilled when a new nephew received a favorite boy's name that had "gone to waste" when my youngest daughter was born. When you stop to think about it, though, it's a little nonsensical to think of names as assets in that way. In my case it was a traditional name, not something I invented. It was an infinitely renewable resource, and not something that would go to the landfill if unused. How can something so abstract and hypothetical ever "go to waste"?

Part of the sense of waste may be about the time and effort we put into assembling our name lists. But more important, I think, is the sense of value being wasted. All of our name lists have something in common: they reflect our own personal tastes. That means they're flat-out gorgeous. They're the best possible names! How can we let such a valuable resource sit mouldering? Shouldn't we share that bounty, "in case someone else finds any of them useful"?


March 27, 2010 4:23 PM


The woman's surname is Martinez (I think). This means that she is giving the vowel in question its so-called continental pronunciation (as it would be in Spanish, French, Italian, etc.). English speakers pronounce that vowel EYE (it's actually a diphthong) because of the Great Vowel Shift (occurring roughly from the 15th to the 18th centuries). In the Great Vowel Shift the long vowels each moved up and forward one position in the mouth, and the highest, most fronted of the long vowels ('ee') broke into a diphthong ('eye'). This is part of the reason why English spelling is so bizarre--spelling was becoming fixed just as vowels were moving all over the place. This is also why English no longer has long and short vowels, but rather tense and lax vowels. That is, the difference is no longer quantitative, but rather qualitative.

By Allison (not verified)
March 27, 2010 5:15 PM

I am already very concerned about a potential "name not taken," and I don't have any children yet. DH and I both love Elspeth, but have tentatively decided to use Margaret as our first daughter's first name. I don't want to use Margaret Elspeth and waste the potential of a second daughter being named Elspeth, but I would hate for Elspeth to go to waste!

March 27, 2010 5:40 PM

Miriam- that is so interesting about spelling and vowels! My son Judah is in kindergarten and is learning to read and spell and when you think about it, so many words in English are quite confusing, especially for a six year old. I also never thought that when we named our son Levi we would encounter so many pronunciation issues. We pronounce it Lee-viy (like the brand of Jeans) though many people see and it pronounce it Lee-vee, Leh-vee or Lay-vee.

Allison- I love Elspeth! I recently read a book called Her Fearful Symmetry (same author as The Time Traveler's Wife) and there was a character named Elspeth who had a twin named Edie- two of my favorite names!

March 27, 2010 6:07 PM

Miriam-Thank you for reminding me about the Vowel Shift. I remember we had talked about it at length a few years back. I guess she is using the Spanish pronunciation but I had just never heard of this version.

Becky-Fwiw, I would pronounce it Lee-viy like the jeans although these days with so many personal variations in spelling the same name, there are bound to be some who would prefer to alter the pronunciation to suit their needs as well.

By knp-nli (not verified)
March 27, 2010 6:20 PM

just saw a really cool/new name on HGTV: Kylina (kye-linn-ah).

And, Becky, I wanted to ask this before when Her Fearful Symmetry came up-- do you remember Edie's full name? Was it Edith or something less expected? it was only mentioned once in the book. I can't remember and don't have a copy of the book.

March 27, 2010 6:33 PM

knp- I don't have a copy of the book at home unfortunately, but I think it was short for Edith. I feel like if it had been something more unusual I would have remembered it...

By Mavis Lucasta (not verified)
March 27, 2010 7:23 PM

SarahC, you mentioned being unsure about Caroline because there aren't any good nicknames. However, there are actually quite a few options. I scoured my brain and the net to find:
Carrie, Cara, Caro, Carlie, Callie, Calla, Caley, Lina, Ro, Carol, Carla, Caddie, Cal, Linie, Lin, Linny, Rolo, Ollie, Oli, Lili, Lee, Leela, Collie, Line, Oline, Care, Rolina, Roro, Carito, Carita, Carolito, Carolita, Carlita, Carlina, Carina, Cappy, C'line, Cora, Caz, Cazzie, Carolie, Rolie, and Rollie.
Obviously some are better than others! I also saw Caca suggested somewhere... might not want to go with that one.
I personally like Callie.

March 27, 2010 8:05 PM

I meant to mention this earlier, but today I met a little girl (probably four or five) named Anthea. I've never actually met anyone with the name before buy I've always thought it was really interesting. In my head I'd always pronounced it an-THEE-ah, but this little girl's name was pronounced AN-thee-ah, where the a in AN is pronounced like the a in apple, which I think I actually like better. It sounds very british to me that way.

March 27, 2010 10:11 PM

Zoerhenne, yes - what Miriam wrote! My father actually is Spanish speaking, and he pronounced the name Isis *Eye-sis,* but he pronounced Isa *Eee-sah.* In any case, I was happy to be Elena.

But must have inherited the love of names that begin with the letter I. Some of my all-time favorites are Iris, Imogen and Iona and the aforementioned Isadora.

In fact, if our last name did not begin with an S, Iris would be at the top of my list. It was on my *top five* several weeks ago . . . along with a couple of other names I love but can't use for one reason or another. Somewhat similar to the whole *name not taken* theme, come to think of it.

I like that pronunciation of Anthea. Reminds me of Xanthia.

By Catherinetoo (not verified)
March 28, 2010 12:17 AM

I am so jealous of those of you who have joint names not taken. Unfortunately my husband and I have totally opposite taste in names and he has rejected all the names I swore I would use as well as many that are very much back-ups (and names I sorta like). Our daughter's name is a compromise that I'm quite pleased with but now we're struggling to name #2. I really hope it's a girl since we at least have a short list from last time. We've never come close with boy names. The funny thing is that Mina is a family name on both sides but neither of us loves it, but neither of us hates it as well so it may well be a name we use.

My name not taken is Samantha. My parents loved it but my grandparents didn't approve of a girl with a boy name. I'm not really a Sam so I'm happy they switched but it seems like such silly reasoning now.

By Philippa The First (not verified)
March 28, 2010 12:25 PM

Help please!

I am 20 weeks pregnant with a baby boy. My husband and I decided on the name Alexander some time ago. We have an older daughter named Rose. My neighbours (3 doors down) yesterday had a baby named Alexander. Can I still give our baby this name?

I don't know if my neighbors named their baby after a beloved relative but we aren't. We chose the name because it sounds really good with the middle and last names this baby will have, and it fits my naming criteria,(classic, non-religious, good nicknames) and we agreed on it quickly.

Our original first choice was William- that's what Rose would have been named if she was a boy. But in November last year my husband's sister had a baby boy with the middle name William, so we crossed it off the list.

We currently live in DC, and there's a good chance that when this baby is 6-9 months old, we will be moving permanently, back to our home country, Australia.

Do you think William and Alexander are common enough that we can handle multiple babies with the same name on the same block? I don't want to step on my neighbour's choice or "steal" her name. Our neighbourhood is very close- we have ten kids under 2 on our block, and two more on the way. I can't even think how many more it would be if I tried to include kids in the street that we aren't close to.

My husband seems to think it's fine. I just think it would be a little strange. I think I'll give my neighbour, who is also a friend, a few weeks to recover and then talk about it with her. What would you say?

By Cathie (not verified)
March 28, 2010 2:02 PM

Kanadiana, have they chosen a name? The names Pierre and Joel are both quite dated ie. not given much today. Are they an English family living in a French area...or maybe they are trying to honor some French heritage?

We are temporarily living in a French-speaking area where many families are bilingual. Here are some of my kids' classmate's names that might work (they are on-trend, plus nice and seamless in both languages): Samuel, Felix, Xavier, Olivier, Milo, Sebastien, Benjamin, Jonathan, Paul, Charles, Patrick, Noah.

Other possibilities would be names like Simon, Gabriel, Lucas (but the s is silent in French), David, Elliot, Liam, Cedric, Leo, Eric, Marc.

But it sounds like they might want something identifiably "French"? Then what about something like Henri, Blaise, Antoine, or Arnaud (could spell it Arno for anglos). I've heard all of them on under-10s. Also I'll put in a plug for Remy although it's retro so a bit daring, but you could update by spelling it Remi. Another possibility would be Louis, but also rarely used today. The problem is that names that go easily into English aren't so identifiably French anymore.

Let us know what they choose!

By Amy3
March 28, 2010 2:13 PM

@Philippa the First, I think you should use Alexander, esp since you're likely not permanent in your current neighborhood. Even if you were staying, though, I'd still suggest sticking with Alexander.

It's a common enough name that I don't see how any one person/family could "claim" it. Not that anyone can *really* claim names, but I think people who choose less common names might feel more territorial.

I do think giving your neighbor a heads up is gracious, but I wouldn't ask her permission.

March 28, 2010 2:13 PM

Philippa- I think it is totally okay to give your son the name Alexander if you have neighbors who have given their son the same name. Alexander is a popular and classic name. Like you said it has a number of nicknames as well, do you know if your neighbors use a specific nickname? If so you might want to stay away from that nn if you are close with them, but otherwise, Alexander is quite popular (#6) and you are not "stealing" it from her. I would, like you said, give her some time and then bring up the situation, noting that it's such a great name and listing all the reasons you love it as well.

By Philippa The First (not verified)
March 28, 2010 2:34 PM

Thanks for your help Becky and Amy! I think the factors that it's already really popular, and we aren't going to live near them forever do make a difference. It's not like we'll be raising two Felixs next door to each other for 18 years!

My guess is that they'll both have the nickname Alex. That's what we will use (don't hate me becuase I'm boring!). Honestly though, the kids (and we as parents) will have to get used to them being Alex G and Alex B at some stage! Not incidentally, I teach 9th grade, with a student roster of about 120ish kids, and the only repeat name on the whole roll is Alex (one girl, one boy)!

By Philippa The First (not verified)
March 28, 2010 2:37 PM

Although you never know with nicknames! I know male Alexanders that are Sandy, Zanner, and Zander. I could go with any of them. Or maybe the neighbours will! I suspect a lot of it depends on how their two year old and our three year old pronounces the name!

March 28, 2010 3:21 PM

Philippa the first-In our neighborhood there are two Matthew's and two Ryan's. Although they are very different ages, and some have moved into the street after others were already here, it doesn't seem a big deal. We call them Big and Little to distinguish.

I don't think 2 Alexander's would be a big deal especially if they ended up being Alex and Zander. I agree to mention it to the other mom if you are friends. Maybe she has a "name not taken" that would work for you.

By SarahC (not verified)
March 28, 2010 4:44 PM

Mavis - thank you for the list of nicknames for Caroline - interesting ones!! This is really the only reason I wish we'd found out the sex - so at least I could narrow it down to one difficult decision! I have a feeling we'll be taking our list with us to the hospital and picking something after baby is born (William was so easy to choose for our first baby since we love the name and it's a family name. This one, not so easy!).
Thanks again!

March 28, 2010 5:14 PM

Philippa- no problem! We had a similar situation where a good friend of mine from growing up named her son Judah a few months after my son was born. She sat me down before she had her son and let me know that she loved the name forever and it was after her grandmother whose name was also Judith (Judah is named after my great-Aunt Judith). I ended up being flattered that she would name her son the same thing as mine (even though she wasn't doing so because I did). Our sons love having the same name and they are close friends.

March 28, 2010 6:00 PM

SarahC-Was it you that needed input on family names from DH? I can't remember who that was but I am curious to know what came of it.

March 28, 2010 6:59 PM

Phillipa - I would still use Alexander if you like it and agree on it, despite your neighbout. You mentioned you aren't going to be living there that much longer so it shouldn't really matter. I think same names within the family may problematic but among friends/neighbours it shouldn't matter unless it's a really uncommon name and it looks like you 'stole' it. Alexander is so common you should just compliment each other on your good taste!

As you are probably aware, both William and Alexander are very common here in Aus. You might hit a pocket where they aren't but if the popularity doesn't bother you, both are very fine names.

March 28, 2010 8:48 PM

interesting names from my local listings:
ROXO (as girl's middle)
ELAINE (as middle)
SUNNIE (Korean last name)
DESERT (as middle)

March 28, 2010 8:55 PM

Funny, I just came across this similar (older) post through an unrelated series of links:

By Philippa The First (not verified)
March 28, 2010 10:54 PM

Chimu, thanks for the advice. And I'm well aware of the popularity of William and Alexander in Australia. I will almost certainly be living in a pocket where they are MORE popular than not (inner west of Sydney). For a few reasons I am just not at all concerned about popularity. One I had a really unpopular name growing up, and I wished I had something more common. Two, I think these are classic/popular names, as opposed to trendy/popular names. For some unquantifiable reason, it also seems to matter a lot less to me if a boy's name is unpopular than a girl's name. I can't pretend I wasn't a little disappointed when Rose snuck into the top 100 NSW names last year!

By Lucky (not verified)
March 28, 2010 11:05 PM

Loved the blog link Jacquie.

It got me thinking though - you might remember helping me with nature names after the Alice blog a few weeks back. (I cut and pasted all your amazing responses and glued them in his/her baby book. Thank you!)

Anyway, one of our stumbling points is that we love the name Sal for a girl, but we don't love Salvadora or Salina or Salma, or Sara(h) and Sally feels just as nickname-y. Anyway, I love how Salome sounds and its meaning, but I think the Biblical association is just to negative to saddle on a baby. But what do you think? We are the most religious of our friends and if we were going to call her Sal anyway. . . . .Would you use Salome or be shocked by someone else using it? It is up there with Adolph?

Our top names at the moment are "Sequoia Llewellyn" nn Sal and "Cypress Timothy" nn Cy.

March 28, 2010 11:15 PM

Lucky- I live in a very trendy naming area where people use surprising names all the time, so I personally wouldn't be surprised to meet a young Salome. Though if you live in a less...experimental...area you might find that people are less receptive to the name. I really like Sequoia Llewellyn nn Sal and think that is very cute and unique but doesn't have the possible negative connotations of Salome. That being said, we've discussed the negative associations of plenty of names here and often people are willing to disregard those meanings/associations if they love a name.

By Bue nli (not verified)
March 29, 2010 7:27 AM

Lucky, I love Salome. It is beautiful, so it's a shame that it's considered kind of R-rated. I do think it will raise some eyebrows, but I for one would be pretty delighted to meet a little Salome.

Anyway, isn't Salome not explicitly named in the bible? I thought it was Oscar Wilde and later interpretations of the story who had given her a terrible reputation as the ultimate female scapegoat.

By WG-nli (not verified)
March 29, 2010 8:42 AM

SarahC-we seem to have much the same taste in names. My oldest is also William, there were no other boy name contenders but the top girl contenders were Cordelia, Elizabeth & Paige. Couldn't agree on a nn for Elizabeth so I feel certain we probably would've gone with Cordelia Paige as fn, mn. Our second is also a boy, had he been a girl, I liked Margaret. Boy names not taken include Patrick, Collin, Phillip and Isaac. We went with George.

March 29, 2010 9:05 AM


My grandmother was a Soledad who went by Sally. I could easily see Soledad nn Sal.

Other possibilities:



Other non-names: Cilia, Killer, Maiden

March 29, 2010 9:28 AM

Linnaeus- my husband was a biology major in college and when we met a young Celia once he let me know we could never use that name because it reminded him of 1) cilia (hair like structures found on cells) and 2) Celiac's disease. The joys of being married to a biologist...

March 29, 2010 10:05 AM

Jacquie- great link- thanks!

Of course, I had to go find out what they named their sibling for Archer- it was a girl, Fable. So unique (like Lyric, in my mind), I love it. It makes so much sense, rhymes with Mabel but has a cool meaning.

I say go for Alexander. My DD is Isabel and I went with it even though I knew it was popular. She's Izzy B in daycare and has been since her first day at 3 months old, since there is an Izzy O, too. Oh well, it's actually her nickname at home anyway. Baby #2 on the way is Max which is pretty popular, too. I always thought I'd choose more unconventional names, but it's a compromise with DH and family's opinions. I'm coming to terms with my own conventionality. Good luck!

March 29, 2010 11:05 AM

jacquie-That blog was cool. I liked reading her explanantions about the names. I think Caspian DOES go well with Archer but Zephyr sounding strong for a boys name??? I also like the sound of Paisley and think that would have been good with Archer too. Now mind you, none of these I would be brave enough to use IRL but that doesn't mean they don't have some unique and fun qualities. Fable doesn't quite cut it for me though.

Lucky-Sequoia is pretty. I like many of Linnaeus' suggestions too.

New baby alert: Identical triplets born in PA were on the news the other night. All girls-Peyton, Kendall, and Chase. I'm not sure about Chase for a girl. It seems too "boy" for me. The mom stated Peyton will be pink things, Kendall=purple, and Chase=yellow to keep things straight.

By EVie
March 29, 2010 11:18 AM

Linnaeus - I'm really curious, where did you find Sarielle? Some years ago I stumbled across Sariel the archangel, and I immediately thought that it was one of the most stunningly beautiful names I've ever come across. I've *never* heard it used, though, nor Sarielle, which I assume would be the feminine construction à la Gabriel/Gabrielle. I ask because I am using it for a character in the novel I'm working on, so I definitely want to be aware of any and all connotations it might carry! (I'm already aware of its similarity to the Garth Nix novel Sabriel, which I also think is beautiful, along with its sequel Lirael).

jacquie & cabybake - Rebecca Woolf had another blog post about names a few years back, about how when she named Archer she thought she was being sooooooo original, and then was devastated when there was another Archer in her play group (or something like that). I definitely took a lesson away from that re: managing expectations.

By SarahC (not verified)
March 29, 2010 11:23 AM

WG-nli - Wow, we do have the same taste!

I like Libby as a nickname for Elizabeth, but I'm still not 'this is it!' on it. The other names you mentioned are also on my list, although Philip is my brother, so I mostly have nixed that one. I like Patrick, but not Pat so much. And I do like George, but worry a little of the overly-popular 'old people names' of late (I love all those names, but convincing my husband isn't so easy). Even though it's getting a little stressful to have to figure it out, it's still fun to think about all the possibilities!

March 29, 2010 12:11 PM


Yes, the name's based off the Archangel Sariel. I used a feminine construction, and sure enough, the name appears in Namipedia.

By WG-nli (not verified)
March 29, 2010 12:22 PM

SarahC--how funny! Libby was the only nn we could agree on for Elizabeth ( I love Liz, he loves Beth), but Libby just wasn't "it". I also love Patrick and worried some about Pat as I don't like that nn at all. But we've managed to get most people to call William by his full name, so I wasn't too worried about it. George made it to my medium size list, but not the short list I shared with dh. I too was worried about the retro-hip old people names. Turned out, dh suggested it after we agreed none of the other names were the one. It was & is perfect. I couldn't imagine calling him anything else. Granted, where I live the old people names haven't taken off like they have in other areas.

By hyz
March 29, 2010 4:56 PM

Becky, Anthea was on my short list for girls last time, but I ultimately crossed it off in large part because all the name books will tell you that it is pronounced an-THEE-ah, whereas I *much* prefer ANN-thee-ah. The same goes for Althea, another lovely name. This seems to be a recurring problem for me, after my Rosalind/Rosamund problems.... As much as I may love a name, I don't want my kid to have to be explaining down the road that their parents insisted upon an incorrect pronunciation for their names, so please pronounce it X, and not Y. It would be one thing if there were multiple correct versions(like with Lena or Vera), but I just don't think I can knowingly use the "wrong" pronunciation.

p.s., if anyone happens to have some authority to the effect that ANN-thee-ah (meaning, the first syllable is stressed and is said the same as the name Ann) IS a "correct" pronunciation, I'd love to see it!!

p.p.s. Ok, I just see now that Laura has it as AN-thee-ə in the Namipedia, and lists a bunch of famous Antheas. . So, do any/all of those women pronounce it as AN-thee-ə, then? British friends, any info to share? I'm excited about this!!

By hyz
March 29, 2010 1:25 PM

William 2, funny you bring up Wilhelmina. Willa is still on my list for future girls, but I don't know that I could get past having TWO daughters with given names that are nicknames for Wilhelmina (even though we chose Minna for its Korean meaning, not its western one). It just seems a little silly.

March 29, 2010 1:52 PM

hyz-I think that would be a bit much also to have siblings named Willa and Minna. Way too matchy/odd! Speaking of matchy, there were twins on my local hospital page named something close to Aurelie + Aurelia. I would so not ever do that! Way too confusing!

March 29, 2010 2:02 PM

I just thought of a wonderful new NON-name.
Xylaphone (pronounced in the Greek style of names Zy-LAFF-o-nee). It's similar to my idea of Cantelope being Can-TELL-o-pee. They are SOOO my fictional sibling names. HA HA HA!

By SarahC (not verified)
March 29, 2010 2:07 PM

Hi zoerhenne,

I don't think that was me. We are trying to figure out a name, but I wasn't waiting on anything from my husband....well, other than the fact that every name I suggest, he has an immediate reaction that usually involves something silly!

March 29, 2010 2:43 PM

I was thinking about Cilia as a name, and other funny non-names from science came to mind (some I remember from college bio/chem, others my dh loves to talk about):

Daphnia; Euglena
Xylem; Phyla
Pollen; Flagella
Neon; Argon
Zinc; Krypton

I think Daphnia and Cilia would be great fictional sisters! The periodic table is particularly fun to reap for funny names :)

By hyz
March 29, 2010 2:56 PM

I kinda like Cobalt!!

By Geraldine (not verified)
March 29, 2010 3:29 PM

Lucky, I don't know the Biblical connotations of Salome, it just makes me think of peace - I'm not sure if that's actually the meaning, but it seems similar enough to shalom that it could be. So obviously from my perspective you should go ahead and use it if you like.

I'm a little confused when you say Sequoia and Cypress are two of your other options - you mean for boys, right?

By hyz
March 29, 2010 3:43 PM

Ok, I just came across another funny non-name name--Felony. This is the actual name of a horse for sale in the local listings, not a baby announcement, but I still thought it deserved mention in the non-name category. Rhymes with Melanie, sounds pretty, so why not? LOL.

March 29, 2010 4:36 PM

hyz- anecdotally, I've only come across ANN-thee-as in the UK, so I don't really see how that could be considered an incorrect pronunciation. Fear no longer!

SarahC- interesting that your brother is Philip. My siblings are Philip and Sarah, and I haven't come across that combo very often.

By saree (not verified)
March 29, 2010 5:21 PM

hyz- I know a Welsh Anthea prn. AN-thee-ah.

March 29, 2010 5:34 PM

hyz- a friend of mine informed me that on the British TV series Skins there is a character whose mother's name is Anthea, pronounced AN-thee-ah. So, not unheard of! I love the name with this pronunciation.

By hyz
March 29, 2010 5:41 PM

Thanks for the AN-thee-ah feedback, everyone! I wonder where some of these baby name sites are coming from, with the an-THEE-ah pronunciation. That just always sounded a bit off and counterintuitive to me, but I figured I'd been wrong before, and I couldn't pinpoint where I'd gotten "my" pronunciation of the name, sooo.... Just goes to show that you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet (as if that point needed further proving). Who knows?? I might've pushed DH harder on this one last time if I had known--it wasn't his immediate favorite, but he didn't mind it, and that's actually saying a lot, for him. At least it's back in the running for next time around!! :)

By Philippa The First (not verified)
March 29, 2010 7:52 PM

Anthea is a reasonably popular name in the UK- I say you're looking at a 50-60 year old demographic. I've never heard it pronounced any thing other that AN-thee-a. The Nameipedia site lists several English Antheas, of whom I know of a few, all of whom pronounce it AN-thea. The only time I've heard the name with regularity was on the English TV show Men Behaving Badly, which had a character called Anthea, who pronounced it the same way.